Tag Archives: culture

Boulangerie Basics

Today’s post is re-posted with permission from Vingt Paris. Vingt Paris is a website devoted to helping its readers get the most out of life in Paris and its 20 diverse arrondissements. This post is part of a larger series exploring the city’s unspoken rules.

By Guillermom Martínez de Velasco

Who doesn’t like bread? It’s probably humanity’s oldest baked good, and when it comes to breadlove, Parisians take it to the next level. The Boulangerie is not just a place to get bread, it is a neighbourhood institution much like your local Alimentation Génerale or Brasserie. I know it may seem odd to think that something as meaningless as getting a baguette could go so potentially wrong. Therein lies the first mistake; a baguette can be regarded by Parisians as more meaningful than most of the things you’ll have to face in a typical city morning.

Out of taking the crowded métro only to change lines at Gare de l’Est; walking through streets full of vendors, noise, cars, unpleasant smells; walking up five flights of stairs constantly, and God forbid, breaking a sweat because of the heat; a baguette is the only thing that is constantly good. This explains why they take special care of the stuff made in their bakeries and why you should too! As these series of articles are meant to illustrate, protocol is protocol.

Unless you were lucky enough to have a real French bakery outside your place before coming to Paris, chances are you thought that the spongy white and brown square you had with toast, was bread. This is not to say that other countries don’t have good bread. It’s just that amazing bread is not as immediately available for the majority of people as it is for Parisians. Luckily, you live here now, so this is what you need to do:
  1. Find a Boulangerie and stick to it. Even though Paris is a big city, it manages to maintain a very local vibe within each neighbourhood. Say bonjour to the people next door, or the gardienne, or anyone in your building, everytime you run into them.  Eventually their replies will come with a smile. Once this happens, slip in the question: What boulangerie do they go to? Congratulations, from now on it’s yours also. Don’t even think about getting bread anywhere else.
  2. Arrive early. After midday bread will be stale and most of the good stuff, like croissant aux amandes, will be long gone. That doesn’t mean that if you walk by the bakery in the afternoon you shouldn’t wave at the employees. Remember, they make your bread and therefore hold the power. The customer is definitely not king in Paname.
  3. Say Hello. At the beginning you’ll notice that everyone seems to be getting warm bread while you, quite simply, aren’t. This is normal. Unfamiliar people get the less than fresh stock. Why would some tourist get the same bread that the gens du quartier do? I know it seems very basic but sometimes we tend to forget to say hello. Everytime you see your baker remember to drop some “Bonjour” “Comment allez-vous?” “Bonne journée” etc. This will make them remember you and, once they do, you’ll start getting the good bread.
  4. Respect your elders. At any given moment, there will be at least one old person in the Boulangerie. Bear in mind they have been going to the same place, most likely every day, for longer than you have been alive. They probably know the baker’s parents and even grandparents. Old Parisians are your gateway to good service. Be extra polite to them; let them cut in front of you, say hello and goodbye, talk about the weather; anything really. What you want is for them to one day step in for you, look the baker in the eye and tell him to treat you right. Befriend the cardigan and béret wearers.
  5. Get the right stuff. There are a lot of options in your standard Boulang’. Don’t be afraid to ask what they would recommend. Remember, this is not some teenager behind the counter working a summer job. The person usually lives for and because of bread. If you feel like choosing for yourself, there are also some failsafe varieties. For the sweet tooth, I recommend either croissant aux amandes or the classic pain au chocolat; if the places makes canelés, don’t think twice about getting some. If it’s a baguette you’re looking for get the tradition. French law requires it to be mixed, kneaded, leavened and baked on site. Freezing it is literally illegal.
  6. Holiday Bread Be it Christmas or Poisson d’Avril, most French holidays have an accompanying holiday bread. Get it, you’ll find that most of the time you’ll eat the whole thing faster than expected. If not, give it to someone as a present. Most importantly, anyone who’s anyone in the eyes of your Boulanger is getting one. You don’t want to miss out.

When and where to eat bread is mostly up to you. As a general rule, resist the urge to bite into your bread before you have reached your destination. Remember the ever-Parisian mantra of keeping it subtle. Was that you eating in public, like you couldn’t afford to give yourself five minutes of leisure time? Mais non! Even though this seems like a long and tedious process, rising to the status of Boulangerie regular is still faster than opening up a bank account (a month), or getting your titre de sejour (several months to a year).

French people don’t conceptualize time the way most other nations do, and even in the hustle and bustle of Paris, no one likes time to be more important than they are. Bread is one of those ways in which Parisians stick it to the man. Be it a 2 hour lunch break or a baguette with ham and camembert while on strike. Take the time to take your time, and enjoy the best bread in the world. After all, it’s just around the corner.

Banking Bloopers

Today’s post is reposted with permission from paris im(perfect), the blog of American writer Sion Dayson.  There’s little practical information here but Sion’s experience here is an engaging all-too-real tale about what happens when an American expat encounters the French banking system.   The moral of the story?  Life in France will be frustrating, even maddening at times but there’s usually a happy ending.

by Sion Dayson

For the first year I was in France, I kept all my money in a sock.

This was well before the global economic crisis, so it was not a protest against untrustworthy banks.

BFF Socks

No, the clothing/cash method wasn’t my choice. It’s because no bank would let me open an account.

Now y’all must remember, I came to Paris on a bit of a whim with not much of a plan. I moved straight into someone else’s tiny studio so my name wasn’t on any official document that could have helped me at first: the lease or gas/electricity bills (proof of stable address), payslips or work contract (proof of income).

Even after my name was plastered on everything from the phone bill to EDF (electricity bill – the best proof of residence) and I had just gotten married, this still wasn’t enough. We went to J’s bank where he had been a client for 15 years and they refused my request.

This became one of those tricky catch-22’s so infamous in France. To get my first carte de sejour I needed a bank account. To open a bank account, I needed my carte de sejour.

Euro

Thankfully, I had just gotten a job with Expedia, and through a personal introduction by a colleague to a bank counselor at the branch next door, they let me open an account (the personal introduction so often smooths over a situation, though funny that an introduction from a colleague worked, but by my husband, nope).

Anyway, I’ve been successfully banking for awhile now.

But my experience makes me wary. So when I received a check from England back in September, I made sure to ask the woman at the bank whether I needed to do anything particular with this (gasp!) foreign check.

The check was actually drawn in euros, not pounds, even though it was from the UK, so she said it would be fine. Just deposit it normally.

-Are you sure? I ask.

-Yes.

-Even though it’s foreign, I insist.

-Yes, no problem.

Ok, so I deposit the check.

One week. Two weeks. Three weeks. A month. No money in the account.

I go to ask about the status of the check.

-Oh, but it’s foreign, it just takes extra time, the woman says.

-How much time?

-You’ll see it in your account soon.

A few more weeks. I ain’t seeing nothing.

Same woman. I explain the same situation.

-Oh! But it’s foreign! You had to fill out a special form!

-I asked you if I had to fill out a special form the first time and you said no.

-Oh, but it’s foreign!

-Right, got that. So what do I do?

We have to track it down. She takes my copy of the deposit slip and tells me she’ll call the next day.

Next day, day after, week after. Nothing.

Go back. New man. Yay, explain the situation to someone new (and actually I am glad it’s someone new, as obviously original woman is not helping).

He makes some calls, photocopies my deposit slip again. Says he’ll call.

He doesn’t.

Go back again. Original woman. She says, oh! But we cannot do anything here. You have to go to your branch (I had deposited it in a different LCL bank than my main LCL branch).

Go across town (almost all of line 2) to my branch (it was close to the job I no longer have).

I recount the story again and say I was told they had to handle it here.

-Mais c’est faux, Madame! It’s false! Ce n’est pas nous! It’s not us.

(Of course not. Of course it’s never anybody’s responsibility.)

-Look, this check has been dangling in some vacuum for 2 months now. I was told to come here. You tell me to go back to the branch that 5, 6 times in a row has done nothing. Tell me exactly what needs to happen. What I need to say to them.

He shows me the form they will have to fill out, a “formulaire de recherche” I think it was called.

I go back to original bank. I say they need to fill out a formulaire de recherche.

-But of course, the woman says, pulling out the form before I can even finish.

OMG. I’m going to kill her.

So this sounds promising, right? They are “looking” for it. “Recherching” it.

Another month. Nothing.

I make an appointment with my bank counselor just to talk about this. I tell her to get on the phone with somebody who will sort this out right now. I’m not leaving the office until she does.

She calls someone. I hear her go “oh, c’est normal.” But then she kind of rolls her eyes, like, yeah, I don’t think this is normal, either.

Alright, is this post long and boring enough for you? Sorry, just a little longer to give you the full picture.

Because, oh wait, what?

Yeah, the story’s still not done.

I hear nothing after the phone call. I get an “avis de suspens d’une remise export a l’encaissement.” I’m not even going to try to translate because it’s still incomprehensible.

I call again. Give all of my information to some new person. She sounds capable. I feel like I’m in better hands.

Then she calls back 3 days later saying she needs all of the information again. They’ve lost it.

Are. You. Kidding. Me.

I leave her a phone message. I leave my bank counselor a message.

I am ready to give up.

And then, four months after the deposit and numerous trips to the bank, I suddenly see my account credited. Just like that.

This is the positive lesson out of all this: just when things seem dire and impossible, something magically happens and the problem is resolved.

The other lessons? If it’s foreign, it’s going to be a problem in France. (Also, get your name on an EDF bill right away).

And really. Sometimes I think I was better off with the sock. :)

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris. Her life is not as clichéd as that statement sounds. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Girls’ Guide to Paris, and a National Book foundation anthology among other venues. She’s currently working on her first novel and blogs about the City of Light’s quirkier side at paris (im)perfect.    

Friend or Foe? How to Cope when the French Get Feisty

Today’s post and photos originally appeared on the HIP Paris Blog and is reposted here with permission.  The author is Tory Hoen.  An avid traveler and writer, Tory is relentless in her search for Paris’ hippest (and most delicious) secrets. Late night, she can be found lounging in various Right Bank hotspots, and by day, you’ll find her doing deals with the green grocers on the rue Mouffetard. Tory splits her time between Paris, New York, and Montreal, but when not in Paris, she’s always scheming about ways to go back.

by Tory Hoen

Paris Cafe Waiter B&W

French café and waiter … unfortunately not always famous for their friendliness. Dolarz

We’ve all heard something to the effect of, “Paris would be perfect, if it weren’t for the French.” I usually laugh these comments off as clichés that hark back to an earlier age, when France was more culturally closed than it is now. We all know that today’s French are as affable as kittens… or are they?

During my days in Paris, my opinion of Parisians vacillated constantly. One moment, I was pleasantly surprised by the (maybe too) friendly feedback I would get from taxi drivers, “Your accent is so charming, you should stay in France forever”; and the next, I was smarting from the evil looks cast by super-stylish French salesgirls, whose foreigner radar always seemed to seek me out.

French waiter, smiling and ready for your order! Flequi

There’s really no point in generalizing about whether the French are “nice” or “mean.” It’s like asking whether clowns are funny or terrifying. The answer? Both.

Grumy French Man Snow

Nice or Mean?  Alex E. Proimos

It’s a nuanced world, especially in Paris. During my last visit, I was in a bakery when an obviously non-French girl was attempting to order a flan. The woman behind the counter asked what kind.

Nature (plain),” said the girl.
Il n’y a plus. Que d’abricot (There’s no more, only apricot),” said the saleswoman.
Nature,” repeated the girl, not understanding.
Abricot,” insisted the saleswoman.
Nature.”
Abricot.”
This went on for a full minute, with the French saleswoman refusing to budge, despite knowing that the poor flan-craving girl in front of her had no idea what was going on. Finally, she basically flung an apricot flan at the girl and sent her packing.

Sometimes, the French are just like that; they make things difficult just for the sake of being difficult. (Because when it’s not difficult, it’s boring).

Therefore, your happiness in Paris may come down to your ability to “manage” the French. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when things (or individuals) get prickly:

Paris Child Boy Smiling Birds

Smiling in Paris – if a child can do it, so can you. Alexandre Duret-Lutz

  1. Speak French. Even if you don’t speak French, learn some basic phrases and always lead with them. A little effort (no matter how poorly accented) can make all the difference between charming a Parisian and alienating one.
  2. Try smiling. This may catch your average Parisian off-guard, which can work to your advantage.
  3. If the smile backfires, try scowling. (A well-executed scowl is tantamount to speaking French, anyway).
  4. Look like you know what you’re doing. If you’re in a store or a market, browse and buy with confidence. Appearing to have discerning tastes and conviction will earn you respect.
  5. Don’t take “no” for an answer. The French person’s default answer is usually “no,” even when they could just as easily say “yes.” Whether you’re requesting a restaurant reservation, a smaller (or, um, bigger) size, or the last table on the terrasse, don’t let an initial negative answer put you off. Persist (with polite assertiveness) and doors may just open.
  6. And above all, don’t take anything personally. Sometimes you’ll end up feeling like an idiot without knowing why, simply because some French person is in a pissy mood. Take it with a grain of salt (good French sea salt).

And remember that, fundamentally, the French kind of like you—even if they act like they hate you. There’s an age-old tradition of loving to hate-to-love-to-hate-to-love-to-hate foreigners, especially Americans. But now that I’m in New York and hearing French on every other street corner, I realize they can’t hate us that much (try as they might to pretend they do).

Required Reading

There’s a kazillion books about France out there — cookbooks, travel guides, memoirs, histories, you name it.  But if you’re going to buy one book before you move to Paris, make it Polly Platt’s French or Foe.    Were it not for this book, I would not have learned that it is absolutely necessary to say “Bonjour Madame” (or “Bonjour Monsieur”) upon entering a shop, nor the importance of asking for help by starting with the key phrase, “Excusez-moi de vous déranger.”   Platt calls the latter the “five magic words” and she’s right.  They automatically establish the relationship in which you the client recognize the expertise of the shopkeeper.  As Platt notes, “this is the charm that warms the hearts of impatient Parisians on the street, of inquistorial telephone operators, and even of those most preposterously maddening of creatures, bureaucrats in post offices and police headquarters.”

Platt decodes French culture and codes of behavior in the home, workplace, and marketplace, reaching back into history to help newcomers understand why things work the way they do.  Some of her advice is a bit dated (for example, sending calling cards to follow up a dinner invitation) but even that offers insight into French customs and ways of doing things.  She covers the territory from the minute (don’t bring chrysanthemums as a hostess gift as they are associated with funerals) to broader cultural themes (like the French hesitancy to admit blame or take risk).  

As you transition to life in France, you will at times find it frustrating and difficult.  Platt’s advice won’t solve all your problems but it will sure get you off on the right foot.

French or Foe is available from Amazon; any independent bookseller worth his salt will also order it for you.   Although Platt passed away in 2008, her Web site is still active and includes a number of articles and interviews.